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Yoga Sutras I: 21-30


Sutras I:21 & I:22

Samadhi is near for those with intense ardor.

Also, a further differentiation is made of mild, moderate, and intense.


         Patanjali tips his hand in the debate over whether we should docilely go with the flow or make efforts toward a spiritual goal. There is nothing slipshod or accidental about the practice of yoga in his book. Samadhi is definitely something that comes about through intense effort. Nor is there anything resembling Christian grace where some divine being bestows perfection on you, or anything to pray to. It’s simply a matter of getting your act together. Humans are off-kilter due to our divisive concepts, and we regain our equipoise by restoring unity to our vision. Unity is termed samadhi, sameness, in the present work.

         Although Nitya has discussed it at length, we have just arrived at the moment Patanjali introduces samadhi. It can’t hurt to recall a paragraph from the Preface:


Just as all rivers flow to the ocean, when all thoughts and inner movements merge in a state of absorption, samadhi comes. Samadhi means “union.” Most people think of the union referred to by Yoga as an act of conjunction of two disparate elements. This is incorrect. When a sleeping person wakes up, there is no conjunction. There is only the transformation of an innate nature, which is experienced as an empirical awareness. Similarly, in Yoga, what is happening is not a union with a second reality but a change from heterogeneity to homogeneity. In other words, you gain a unitive vision of life in your understanding, dedicated program of action, and progressive cultivation of happiness, which is identical with the happiness of the world.


         The class discussed wakefulness for awhile. Paul helped us to distinguish the ordinary waking mind from the wide-awake witness of the turiya, the transcendental version. Being awake is a mysterious state, since we always think of ourselves as awake. It is only when we enter a subsequent state of wakefulness that we can tell that we were previously asleep. For instance, when we are angry we feel wide awake, but after we calm down we are likely to feel that we were in the grip of some terrible misunderstanding. We decided it was essential to always question whether we are really awake or are acting under some undetectable compulsion. Here again, outside input is very useful, so long as it is intelligent. Recent examples of Christians who kill to uphold their tenet of “Thou shalt not kill” provide a cautionary tale of how we can be led astray if we meekly accept what we are told. Cults insist first and foremost that their followers cast out doubts and avoid inconvenient questioning. Going along without resistance is passed off as an advanced spiritual technique, but it is more likely to be a soporific to lull the mind back to sleep.

         This subject brought us back to the aspect of effort left hanging last week, from sutra 20: discernment or discrimination. How do we discern what is helpful and what isn’t? It’s a tough nut to crack, and while we tapped on its shell a bit, we didn’t actually expose the meat inside. The implication is that some things promote yoga and some don’t. No one wants to change their lifestyle to accommodate waking up, unless their ardor happens to be intense. Most people find yoga to be of passing interest, or of middling attractiveness, but nothing to alter behavior over. Luckily we have a few class members who have put the teachings to the test and found their lives improved by it. That tends to ratchet up their interest level.

         For example, Nitya tells us here that “In the spiritual pursuit, the idea is to give up totally and the receiving acts like a fountain where what is given in the form of love is received back in the form of grace.” Moni told a gratifying tale of her recent experience at work, where her kindness and love for her clients is being reciprocated in surprising ways. Because she refuses to become upset or hostile with them, she has overcome the chronic negativity of some of the struggling souls who come to her. Where a bureaucratic attitude would likely embroil Moni in endless wrangling, her serenity and unselfishness invite the best from others. It is wonderful that despite all the constraints built in to a less-than-perfect system, Moni can bring a lot of light into it. Not only that, but it’s nice to see that she’s getting appreciation back from a tough job, because that’s what makes it possible to bring her kind of energy to it.

         The biggest hurdle to yoga is a drugged mind, and the hardest discernment to make is what to do about it. Western societies in particular are sozzled in sauce pretty much all the time. In the US, regular alcohol use is engaged in by around two-thirds of the population, though because the very elderly drink little, the figure for those in their prime is over four-fifths. Licit and illicit psychoactive drugs push the numbers higher, probably over ninety percent. Television is famous as a mental eraser, and should probably be included as a highly popular drug as well. Other countries may not be as maniacally wired as the US, but this is an issue everywhere.

         While drug use makes life pleasant in the short run, it tends to freeze the psyche at the level it begins its involvement. I used to wonder why many students in my classes were so slow to learn, not so much in their minds as in their vitals, until I realized they were high on something, most commonly alcohol. The presentation of profound subjects was just another form of amusement for them, a flickering play of light and shade, to be forgotten almost as soon as it had ended. The ideas might stick in an abstract way, but they weren’t able to be implemented. They couldn’t get to the core. Interesting philosophy might assuage the conscience that the student was imbibing something meaningful, but it was just another trip.

         For the average person in the average congregation, being mildly inebriated makes them much more vulnerable to manipulation, and much less likely to hold to high ideals in the face of public pressure. Psychological testing has demonstrated how easily we can be manipulated by other people, especially if they wear the vestments of authority. And most of that testing has been done on sober subjects. So the most important aspect of discernment is to not have any excess baggage when you address the Absolute, in meditation, in class, or whenever you want to be serious. Yoga is not about learning to be a subservient follower. It is a way to gain independence, on every level and in every sense. Paradoxically, when we attain true freedom we are closest to attunement with the totality. If we are dependent on externals we are tuned out, even as we imagine we are tuned in.


Part II

         Following up on ways we discern our path poorly, Deb groused about how tired she was of reading about spirituality, and feeling that she needed and wanted to live it and experience it directly. Substituting ideas for direct experience is something our brains readily do, because of how they work, but the heaven worlds we envision are more like a fool’s paradise. Books, movies and other media are big sources of ideas, but they provide ersatz experience that only mimics the real thing.

         This is at the heart of the game: how to keep it real. If we don’t take the ideas we imbibe and apply them, we are living in a world of make believe. Part of us is likely chafe at the superficiality of pretend spirituality, so we feel dissatisfied, and there can be conflicts with our mind if it insists that what we are doing is something special. If we misunderstand the feeling, we might reject the very thing we most need. That voice of dissatisfaction within is our inner guru trying to get us to wake up from yet another dream, a really captivating dream of imaginary spirituality. Of course, we can medicate our inner guru and make it be quiet, which provides an ersatz solution to an ersatz problem. But a better choice is to address the problem directly by vivifying our encounters with life.

         On a related note, our modern educational systems unintentionally train us to think of ourselves as more knowledgeable than anyone else. This is probably a defense posture against being taught side-by-side with somebody really sharp, yet it can have the same effect as leaving your doubts at the church door, in that valuable suggestions will be pointedly ignored. I am always amazed at the highly intelligent and educated people whose minds are slammed shut against some very important ideas, proving the assertion of the Isa Upanishad, verse 9:


Into blind darkness enter they

That worship ignorance;

Into darkness greater than that, as it were, they

         That delight in knowledge.


The solution is given in verse 11:


Knowledge and non-knowledge—

He who this pair conjointly knows,

With non-knowledge passing over death

         With knowledge wins the immortal.



Sutra I: 23

Or, by continuous contemplation on Isvara.


         Prior to the start of class we had a discussion about a friend currently in extremis. It was so heartening to hear the intelligent sympathy that everyone genuinely felt, and the wide range of its embrace. Everyone brought a slightly different perspective to bear, which provided mutual enrichment for penetrating to the nub. It reminded us of the value of a gathering of friends, the geometric increase potentiated by linking minds in series. Not to mention revealing the innate beauty of each and every participant. This turned out to be a perfect overture to tonight’s Sutra.

         Nitya describes the emergence of Isvara as Patanjali’s term for the Absolute. Samkhya is a system of duality based on prakriti and purusa, meaning nature and spirit or matter and energy. Isvara is the term for the totality of purusas, as though all the individual souls in the universe were molecules in a titanic oversoul.

         Philosophers group related items together to allow them to understand the world better. Really, everybody does this quite naturally. The word for ‘chair’ for instance represents a general concept that can include many different specific instances of items that can be called chairs. Sometimes even a fallen log or a stone is a chair. Superficially, they are quite different from your favorite easy chair in your living room, but as chairs their relationship becomes quite simple to grasp. We don’t usually find people arguing over whether a log is a chair, because it’s easy to see how it could be one. So prakriti, nature, is easy to unify.

         Spirit is a little trickier to generalize, and people have a much easier time fighting over their differing versions. We readily acknowledge a spark of consciousness in each living being, but it takes a yogi or a philosopher to see that they are all integral parts of an indescribable absolute Self or Isvara. We might lump beings, human and otherwise, into various categories, but these are more based on physical characteristics that spiritual ones. We have to penetrate below the surface to begin to comprehend the oneness of all beings, but happily, as we do go deeper the oneness readily becomes apparent.

         Patanjali is going to dedicate a significant part of his magnum opus to this concept, so more will be forthcoming. For now we can see that he has made a distinction between samadhi, sameness or unity, and Isvara, the Self. The division parallels the former distinction of those who make no effort and those who do, and is even closer to the distinction made in Chapter XII of the Bhagavad Gita, where Arjuna wants to know if he should contemplate the formless void or personify it in some fashion. Krishna tells him that the personal version is easier, but that both take you to the same place. Similarly, the only reason to have samadhi and Isvara both is that samadhi is union with the Self. At their core they make reference to the same experience.

         The class discussed what continuous contemplation means. It sounds like you are never supposed to get off your yoga mat, but that isn’t the idea. I started us off with how when driving a car you cannot drop your attention for even a moment or you will crash. We don’t have to anxiously fixate on the road and hold the wheel with a grip of doom, we can relax and enjoy the ride. But we have to have some awareness dedicated to relating to what’s happening around us.

         The gist of continuous contemplation is that everything that happens is taken as meaningful to your search for truth. There are no random disconnected events. They are all linked within the oneness of the Self. So you don’t dismiss anything, you cherish it. When something happens to you, you examine it to see what your part in it is. And you listen to your friends and advisors, who are likely to pick up on what you are missing.

         Deb mentioned that early in her time with Nitya he told her that the bedrock of spirituality was honesty. We are prying through our natural obfuscating mentality to reclaim a straightforward assessment of every situation. We don’t warp it to suit our preferences. Nor is it a random world of “every man for himself.” We are interconnected, and we float in an ocean of truth. It’s not always easy to descry, but that’s what we’re working toward. Of course, this takes effort, well-directed, intelligent effort. Continuously.

         A lot of examples were offered, enough to fill a small volume, but I’ll just pick one or two. Susan has been working hard to back off from her desire to micromanage some factors in her life. She heard a psychologist say that very often in conversation we don’t really listen to the other person. We have an agenda, and what we say is a gambit to manipulate the other person into bringing up the subject we are dying to talk about. So the conversation isn’t a real exchange, but more like a boxing match, with each side maneuvering for advantage. Susan realized that if she really and truly listened to the other person, by suspending her own agenda, she would learn a lot. More important, she clearly saw how that kind of manipulative behavior killed the spirit of exchange, and made the other person erect walls of their own. Listening invites the other to come out; lecturing drives the other person into hiding. Of course, you will succeed in getting your ideas across much better with someone if there is mutual sharing than if there is mutual hostility. But Susan went one step farther, and asked herself why she needed to propagate a program at all. By not taking the reins, the other learns to ride, and that is a joy for both.

         Susan also talked about codependency, how we want so much to help the other person that we sometimes give them enough rope to hang themselves. It’s very hard for us to say no to a friend or family member, so we either string them along or indulge their negativity. One hard part of being honest with others, is to let them know, gently but firmly, that we disagree with them. In the same way, we resist being honest with ourselves because it’s easier to “go along” with our habits than to take ourselves to task. When we allow for destructive behavior, whether in our self or in others, we are allowing a lacuna in our continuous contemplation. Walking the razor’s edge between this kind of standing up and holding back is yet another art form of yogic discipline.



Sutra I: 24

Isvara is a distinct purusha unaffected by the propensities of affliction, action, and fruition.


         Typical of Indian wisdom, Isvara, the Absolute, is more easily defined by what it is not than what it is. Patanjali expands karma, action, into a threefold process to teach us more about it, and in the process distinguish it from ordinary purushas, who experience karma as a matter of course.

         Jan wondered about the word ‘distinct’, whether it meant that Isvara was a distinct thing. Not so much that, but the idea is to distinguish it from ordinary purushas, the distinction being that it is unaffected by karma.

         Nitya uses a nice metaphor of a game of pool in his commentary to describe the threefold karma. Players line up in their minds what they want to make happen, then they strike the cue ball with a stick, after which balls are knocked around in a more or less unpredictable fashion. The results follow the laws of physics, but only rarely does the ordinary person do everything just right to make things bounce the way they want. More often they have to assess how everything ends up and plan their next shot accordingly. While a helpful metaphor, as Anne said, life is more like a game with an infinite number of balls all bashing into each other, and going every which way. Not only that, but the table is uneven, curved and bent so that the balls never go exactly where you aim them.

         The state of ignorance in which we plan our shots in this crazy arcade is the affliction mentioned here. We are only in possession of a tiny amount of the information and skill we need to knock a ball into the pocket. The shot itself is the actual karmic action, and the way the balls realign afterwards is the fruition of the action.

         Isvara, then, is like a light above the table, illuminating the game but unaffected by it.

         The admission that we act in ignorance brought a volley of stories from all participants. It seems we cannot help but imagine that everyone else knows what they are doing, while we inwardly chafe at our own inadequate knowledge. It's nice to know we're all in the same boat.

         Anne and John talked about raising kids, how you had a wonderful vision of how it was going to all unfold, but then the random factor of the kids’ own interests and desires “skewed the pitch,” as cricket players call an uneven field. They roll away from you like a cue ball zooming toward its own destiny, and where they end up is anyone’s guess and everyone’s anxiety.

         Anne and John's oldest son needed open heart surgery at the age of two. Anne related the intense feelings of having to make a life and death decision for her child while not being sure what was the right course to pursue. For us ordinary purushas, our lives are punctuated with agonizing periods like that, thankfully not very often. John and Anne had a successful outcome, but there are no guarantees.

         John felt that luck played a big part in karma, and that’s right. Scientists like to boast that if they had complete knowledge of some process they could predict outcomes, even to the end of time, but they are deluded. We never have complete knowledge of anything, and the sheer volume of karma, vast and interwoven as it is, endlessly produces new and unanticipated results. Krishna says that luck is a quality of the Absolute in Chapter X of the Gita. Luck is the same as Chance or Fate. Quantum mechanics bows to Chance as what determines the behavior of particles. As Deb pointed out, we only know what our luck was after the fact, as a fait accompli. We may hope and pray for good luck, but we only know about what kind we’ve received when we examine the new pattern in which our pool balls are scattered over the table. And while we call it good or bad, it's merely a reading of how the balls are lying after all the myriad forces have acted on them up to that point. Nor is it ever static even for an instant.

         In honor of this concept, Bill reread us Nitya’s great line from the commentary: “A randomness that assumes a course of purposiveness, and a purposive maneuvering that is mounted on a horse of uncertainty work hand in hand. With innumerable such occurrences of randomness all around, the course of action is determined within a field of uncertainty.”

         Paul related a funny story from his days as a firefighter. A really tough-looking guy was having a heart attack, so everyone on the call steeled themselves for resistance from him. People under duress can get pretty nasty. The ambulance attendant ordered him in a bossy tone to get onto the stretcher. He answered meekly in a high, lisping voice that couldn’t he please take his slippers with him? Which slippers? Those fuzzy ones over there. Ah, so he was another meek soul just trying to appear fearsome for protection. The point being that we should be careful not to make too many false assumptions, since we are indeed colossally ignorant.

         Paul’s story reminded me of a friend from Texas whose grandmother was a hard-bitten holy-roller fundamentalist. She lived her life being damn sure of what lay ahead for her in heaven, sitting on the right hand of the Lord, and she wasn’t shy about carrying on about it all day long. But when death approached, all her bluster fell away like tissue paper in a rainstorm. She spent her last days whining like a little girl, overwhelmed by terror of the unknown gulf yawning before her.

         So it’s wise to acknowledge our ignorance, and get used to it. We don’t need to impress anyone that we know what’s going on, though everyone seems obsessed about it. As Bill said, lots of religions tell lots of stories about what’s coming up, and it makes them very popular. Jan read a number of such tall tales in the period after her father died, but they didn’t satisfy her. From her centered perspective they seemed bizarre and unnecessary. The bottom line is we will meet our fate squarely only if we have discarded our unfounded expectations. That doesn’t mean we don’t try to play the game with expertise, but only that we surrender our false posture of smug wisdom based on other people’s fairy tales.

         Isvara is not pandering any such stories. It is unaffected by the all-absorbing game we are caught up in. Bringing in that detached perspective will help us live our lives more fully and with less anxiety about the lion’s share over which we have no control.

         We closed with a fitting word from a wise musician that Deb came across this week. Norman Cousins, in his book Anatomy of an Illness, quotes the then almost ninety-year-old Pablo Casals, the master cellist, on the role of the individual in bringing about world peace. In conversation they had come to the conclusion that the biggest problem was that the individual felt helpless:


“The answer to helplessness is not so very complicated,” Don Pablo said. “A man can do something for peace without having to jump into politics. Each man has inside him a basic decency and goodness. If he listens to it and acts on it, he is giving a great deal of what it is the world needs most. It is not complicated but it takes courage. It takes courage for a man to listen to his own goodness and act on it. Do we dare to be ourselves? This is the question that counts.”



Sutra I:25

In that Isvara the seed of the omniscient is not exceeded.


         The class had a tough time honing in on the meaning of the sutra, and it took a little digging to figure out why. Because of the methodology of Patanjali, the comments on sutras 25 and 27 are reversed, in a way. In Nitya’s mind, pranava should have come before omniscience. In a section like this one on Isvara, Nitya would have been steeped into all the ideas at once, so it’s not hard to understand why it came out the way it did. Regardless, to make sense of this sutra, it helps to read the comments on 27, and vice versa.

         Certainly the subject is broadly unified, so reading all about the pranava of sutra 27 as the designator of Isvara still led us to ponder Isvara the omniscient. Aum, the pranava, introduces the fourfold system of correlation of wakeful, dream, causal and transcendental that Nataraja Guru superimposed on the Cartesian coordinates. Isvara as the seed of the omniscient presents what I call the pulsation model, of a seed or point source expanding into full expression, which is then epitomized in a new seed.

         The identity of the seed of the causal with the seed of the fountain source landed in Moni’s mind with an audible “thunk.” The whole group heard it arrive. As she explained it, when you look at a seed, there is nothing of what it will expand into visible in it, it is just this indistinguishable stuff. It is purely potential. Isvara is the absolute potentiality of everything.

         Bill helped us to extract the omniscient element that is present but hard to grasp in Nitya’s comments. When each of the four states of consciousness reaches its natural, unsurpassable limit, that is called omniscience. It’s not a limit in the sense of a big iron wall, but when waking consciousness goes beyond a certain transactional verity, it becomes dream consciousness, and so on. At the outer limit of the wakeful we have the brilliant scientists of various persuasions. At the limits of the dream, Nitya goes on, “those who arrive at the frontiers of the world of imagination are recognized as master poets, master artists, master playwrights, and so on. In this case also, omniscience is marked by the unfoldment of a person’s creative power so that it can be taken to its ultimate possibility.”

         The causal is bounded by the possible, which is defined by the laws of the universe. Nitya puts this beautifully: “What is not present as a potential in the cause cannot manifest in the effect. Conversely, anything manifested as an effect is indicative of a latent cause, a hidden seed. Here, the limitation arises from a pulsation within manifestation, expanding from a cause to an enlarged field of effect and, in the same manner, centripetally turning inward to epitomize the entire effect into a causal factor.”

         The limits of the fourth state, the transcendental, are the canceling out of the knower and the known. What more can you say about it? Whatever it is horizontalizes into the other three states.

         Paul detected a subtle mechanical aura behind Patanjali’s philosophy. He wondered if this meant we were supposed to attain samadhi by incremental steps, or if, as he understood it, it was to be grasped by some kind of quantum leap. Infinity cannot be attained by adding one plus one plus one for a very long time. So how do you get there? Paul was expressing the frustration of several people that Patanjali seems to be beating around the bush, not getting to the point. But he does have a very definite methodology in mind. Hopefully some patience and a few chocolate chip cookies will make all the suffering worthwhile.

         This sutra highlights the difference between unitive Advaita and Patanjali’s dualistic Yoga. Here Isvara is an omniscient seed. When it expands into manifestation it is no longer Isvara, but becomes one of the other purushas. As Deb rightly pointed out, in Advaita the Absolute becomes all this, wakeful, dream and deep sleep. The Gurukula stands for the unitive, but we can accept some duality for purposes of discussion and contemplation. When all is said and done, the differences fade away into nothingness.

         Much of our discussion followed Nancy and Anita’s taking each side of this polarity. Anita held that the great masters of history have all gone away into caves or mountaintops or had other vision quests to achieve what they achieved, and their examples have inspired whole movements and religions. Nancy averred that, like honeybees, we are all part of a larger, coherent reality all the time, even if we aren’t aware of it. There was a lot of territory to explore here, and the synthesis of both aspects provides a very rich sense of what gives life meaning.

         The synthesis in question is that you can listen to your own inner voice, your dharma, and it will lead you where you should be going. That may be far from the madding crowd, or right in the midst of the most chaotic events, depending on your predilections.

         The catch is that if we are pressed by outside circumstances into serving someone else’s dharma, we may live an unfulfilled life, and there are billions of examples of this all around the globe. Sure, people usually make the best they can of their tough situations, but their lives are often very far from being like those of the busy bees who soar through the sky to sip nectar from exuberant flowers and return to make the sweetest of decoctions. Likewise, if we follow someone else’s route to enlightenment, the very arbitrariness of it can kill the spirit. If it kindles a fire in the heart, fine, but if it’s only an expression of discontent with the present it may lead to a dead end. Plus, as Deb said, most of those stories about the masters are allegorical. The “going away” can happen right here, right now.

         To Patanjali, we must seek the seed of omniscience by subtracting all of manifestation and returning to its source. This is exactly Anita’s point. To Narayana Guru and Nancy, all this is an expression of the Absolute, so we can embrace it right now. And we can see that these are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but mutually complementary attitudes.



Sutra I: 26

That [Isvara] is the teacher of the ancients also, not being limited by time.


         An ideal subject for personal exploration united a small group on one of our rare outdoors classes. As the hot day mellowed into comfortable warmth and a half moon brightened in a peach-colored sunset over the coastal mountains, we shared our thoughts about the sutra.

         The evidence of an eternal teaching principle of the universe, called by some the guru, is richly evidenced in all our lives. Very often we take its effects for granted, distracted by the unappreciative attitudes carved out by modern education, and imagine we are merely the passive victims of Fate. So it is good to take stock once in awhile, to stop and call to mind a few of our manifold blessings.

         Eugene mentioned that we usually don’t realize the transformations we are going through until after they happen. It’s true that the conscious part of our mind is the last to know what’s going on. Often we resist change and cling to the comforts of the Known. But life’s educational force can work behind the scenes even better than in the full glare of daylight. Eugene also noted this, that we may intentionally try to disrupt the process of our unfoldment, but it happens anyway. Our knowing is in some ways a block to evolution. Perhaps this is why the Isha Upanishad reminds us that those who relish knowledge dwell in even greater darkness than those who worship ignorance.

         Each of us can retrospect over our lives and discern certain points where major watershed events occurred, but when we look closer they appear very much like seamless parts of a continuous unfoldment. When a seed sprouts and shoots upward, develops branches and leaves, then produces flowers and finally fruits filled with new seeds, it is one long, beautiful gesture. Yet we might notice the first stem division and think, “This is where the plant began to become itself.” A fetus develops similarly, evidencing a continuous unfoldment of a constructive program, yet as observers we take note of the moments when the heart starts beating or the limbs begin to bud out, and think “Aha! that’s the important part.” The child’s internal program continues even after birth, but in the midst of all the chaos we begin to think that outside forces are doing the shaping. Only a contemplative will be able to see the internal unfoldment that is imbibing elements from the environment, drawing them to it in an intelligently planned manner. So it turns out that we are not victims of Fate: Fate is a victim of us. Better yet, we are partners in one of the greatest stories ever told: our life.

         I don’t want to trivialize people’s personal narratives by recounting them here. Deb mentioned how some of her key stories began to seem like a cartoon version after she told them a few times, so she just stopped. Her friend Jane’s idea was that we carried our stories like identity cards to wear over our breast pocket, as a way to prove ourselves to others. It’s a tremendous relief when we have developed enough confidence to not need to ratify ourselves anymore. It also requires bravery, because we live in a suspicious world that may well treat us as criminals until proven otherwise. And it might not even be interested in our proof….

         Each of you has your own portfolio of stories, and you can recount them to yourselves and share them with your best friends at rare moments. You can even send them in to the class notes group if you wish, since sometimes sharing is a way of letting them go. As Brenda pointed out, hanging on to our outdated  self-descriptions is a mistake most of us make. She described one of her main stories from the past, one which served her well for a long time. Then one day she met a wise teacher who told her that it was time to drop it. It had become a narrative about a person who no longer existed, and letting go of it would permit her to be what she was in the present. She was amazed at how freeing it was to let it go.

         Eugene felt he has recently been working through that very stage. His favorite story has been very successful and useful to him, so it isn’t easy to relinquish, and maybe it isn’t fully time yet. His inner guru will know, and since he listens to it he won’t be too far behind in making any necessary adjustments. Time lags are endemic to humanity, it seems. And it is possibly as much a mistake to let go too soon as too late. Our stories give our lives coherence, and help us to develop more complex aspects of ourselves. There is tremendous value in them. Only, we shouldn’t become dependent on them. They are like the wake our boat makes as we eagerly plow ahead.

         So, looking back along the timeline of our lives we can detect a smooth flow toward becoming who we are, or at least what we appear to be for the moment, because the flow is continuous. There is no point when it becomes a finished product. A big part of the fun of life is not knowing what comes next, and the fault of fixed self-narratives is that they rely on static conceptions that pretend we are in some sense finalized. Where our boat is now is not where we want it to stay always.

         Watershed events look very intentional in retrospect, but when they happened we had no idea what they were going to lead us into. It’s really so cool! It can make us melt with gratitude that this grand principle of learning, growth, and creative development is such an intrinsic part of life. Really, gratitude seems to be one of the best attitudes for fostering continued growth. And the flip side, ingratitude, is a perfect recipe for keeping us stuck in an impoverished conception of ourselves.

         Recent brain scan studies reveal that we become consciously aware of new states quite a long time after the brain starts generating them. Our lives are born in darkness and grow into the light, over and over again. And this is a lucky thing, for if we were truly in charge we would be far poorer at the job than our inner guru. I have often thought that if my life actually relied on me, I would rapidly find myself face down in the ditch, a feast for flies.

         When humans really do put themselves in charge, we get the four horsemen of the apocalypse: conquest, war, famine and death. So let's not.

         Several times I have looked back over my life to see that, with the grace of the guru, I had avoided some serious pitfalls that I was unknowingly walking on the razor’s edge of. If I had been aware of them at the time, I would have become giddy and fallen in for sure, since pitfalls famously can draw and hold our attention. Only my ignorance coupled with the guru’s beneficent guidance steered me through. Becoming aware of this invisible drama made me inwardly bow to him in intense gratitude, and rededicate myself to both serving him and fostering my own growth by adding fewer impediments.

         We closed with an idea that came to me the one time I went to Greece. The Aegean Sea is filled with interestingly shaped islands. When you sit on one, you can see others on the horizon, and they seem as though they are calling to you. If some creative deity wanted to coax humans to develop a means of crossing the sea, by building boats and learning how to propel them, it would situate those intriguing and beckoning visions just exactly as they are. It made me realize that our life is filled with delightful visions that we can pursue if we are so inclined, and in the process we must necessarily learn and grow. We might have to invent new skills. It is a vision of a benign universe dedicated to evolving consciousness, which is a far cry from the cold, dead milieu of popular imagination, where we have to wrest every miserable step out of a hostile wasteland.

         By class’s end the dark had enveloped us. We might have been the shadowy shapes we could just make out, around which the gentle music of our voices floated in the air, or perhaps it was only our imaginations.


Part No Part

  It’s always nice to have something other than my own blah blahs to pass along, especially when they as delightful as the following. The first is from a new recipient and old friend, Lila Higgins from Massachusetts, and I share her first thoughts without asking. If there is anything remotely embarrassing I make sure to ask first, but this is from the other end of the spectrum:




Thank you for sending me the class notes. I go back to read them as there is so much work you all have been doing, it will take me awhile to jump right in-


I did have a dream (usually I don't remember them) last night where I was with all of you - and Peter  ..... and laughing.  I felt such happiness - it has been so long since I felt that way.  So some part of me in my soul is in joy to have some connection thru you to Nitya.


Love and blessings                                                    




Wendy Oak and I have been having a bit of a conversation about struggling with the Yoga Sutras, and her attraction to a number of more “candy-like” approaches to spirituality. She is in one of Nancy Yeilding’s online classes. Her words should be tucked into the first page of any Gurukula study. She sent this with an okay to share:


Dear Scott


Firstly to say thank you for reading my thoughts and sending me your reply.


Lots of your remarks spoke to me and I have brought out your class notes for Sutra 1:4 Part 1, and found that the two go together.

I am not sure if I do just ‘dither’ along, but I certainly have wanted my learning to be accessible and comfortable, even if the teachings demand a more focused approach. So in one way I have wanted to not be too challenged, yet also felt a bit uneasy as if I was not giving it my all. Tuning into the bits I liked and switching off from the more inaccessible bits.


Also I have dug many wells. The sheer delight of opening up a crisp new book filled with fresh ideas, like opening Pandora's box. Drooling over how I already apply them to my life or maybe I can give this new one a go. Until another one comes along and lures me into its alluring promises and magic.

Of course alongside all these shallow wells, is the one deep one containing all Guru Nitya’s treasures and related others.

This well is the one which asks for full attention to haul up the bucket. No quick fixes or flashy promises. I have visited this well many times but lowered my bucket just as far down as I could comfortably cope with.

Now I can hear Patanjali laughing down below. If you want me you will have to come and get me: ‘I am not yours for a leisurely read in a hammock on a summer day’.


These first 12 lessons have challenged me. I haven't ever thought of giving up but certainly been very frustrated and resentful.

Feeling myself to be too stupid to understand all this incomprehensible stuff. In a dither. [Nancy has been very helpful, supportive and affirming]

So I was thrilled to read your earlier class notes and see how others felt a bit the same in the beginning. And how it is big choice time. And yes please I do want a resurrection, and okay it will initially be tough. As your Richard Wilhelm comments imply:


‘if a person encounters a hindrance at the beginning of an enterprise, he must not try to force an advance but must pause and take thought. However nothing should put him off his course, he must persevere and constantly keep the goal in mind.’


So with my head down the well and with determination to haul up the goodies, I am proceeding in a more serious manner. Prepared to give it my all. And I thank you so much Scott and your class for being so unitive.


with love from Wendy.


And my own thanks to everyone for being a part of the Gurukula family, both virtual and actual! Scott



Sutra I:27

Isvara’s signifier is pranava (Aum)


         Aum is a word, more like a sound, that designates the Absolute. In the course of life we learn to associate sounds with concepts, and so we are always adding new features to the words we use, based on our experiences.

         The aspect we most wholeheartedly want to append to our conceptualization is God or the Absolute itself. We collect a lot of valuable information about these mysteries in our studies, but still have not attained what our words and concepts designate. How do we make the leap?

         We are on the verge of a section where we can really dig into it, or as Wendy has said we can send our bucket down all the way to the water before we draw it back up for a peek inside. It’s too bad that this part will be chopped up by summer breaks, so feel free to read ahead. Or, simply meditate on the mantra Aum.

         Aum is designed to lead us back from objectivity into conceptualization, from concepts to their point sources, and through a nondimensional point into the transcendental. Our ordinary mind is fixated on objective aspects, so it takes a lot of repetition to ease our focus back to its source. We do this by chanting, but also by the regular class sessions where we examine aspects of our lives and relate them to the center, over and over.

         A good class is a kind of nonspecific chanting of aum. First someone mentions a problem or observation or complaint. Then we talk about it, converting it to a sensible mental picture. Next we sit quiet and allow the externalizing trend to dissipate, allow for an inner stillness. After that—-who knows? We don’t make any claims, so that we don’t have any expectations, which disrupt the entire process. What will be will be.

         Nitya first mentions the five klesas or afflictions, which we are subject to but Isvara is not. They are: ignorance, attachment, aversion, egoism, and “excessive love of life.” We have discussed at length how ignorance, attachment and egoism can mess up our lives, but we did some good work with the other two. Aversion to evil is an important attribute of a sane life, so where does it go wrong? And of course love of life is a high value, one of the highest. So what can make it excessive?

         Anita gave us a perfect example of aversion as an impediment. During her divorce of many years ago, she was so angry and upset she decided, “That’s it! I don’t need anybody ever again!” Pushing her abusive husband away, she unintentionally pushed a great many other things away as well. Her feelings of aversion spilled over into other parts of her life. In consequence,  many opportunities to love and interact with others were blocked, and it took her years and years before she could rectify her wholesale aversion and restore a loving basis to her life.

         We assured Anita that she was not alone in acting that way. Pretty much everyone retreats to a well-defended fortress tower at some point in their life, and it usually takes until middle age to realize the pickle we’re in. We think we’re pushing away something horrible, but—-inertia being what it is, equal and opposite—-we’re also pushing ourself back from life. But the fact that we have at last realized what we’ve done gives us the chance to undo the locks, to come out and love again. Anita, along with others in the class who knew exactly what she was talking about, has thrown open the gates of her fortress self and stepped back out into the chaos of life. This is cause for great joy, tempered only by the sober realization that most people never find their way back out. Once in the tower, the self-imprisonment tends to be permanent, with the soul only released by death. We are ecstatic when another prisoner is released while alive!

         Which brings up a fine mantra by St. Bob, perfectly expressing the pinch and the desire we have to become free once more. Sing it loud, sing it in the shower:


I Shall Be Released

Bob Dylan


They say ev’rything can be replaced,

They say ev’ry distance is not near.

So I remember ev’ry face

Of ev’ry man who put me here.


I see my light come shining

From the west unto the east.

Any day now, any day now,

I shall be released.


They say ev’ry man needs protection,

They say that ev’ry man must fall.

Yet I swear I see my reflection

Some place so high above this wall.


I see my light come shining

From the west unto the east.

Any day now, any day now,

I shall be released.


Standing next to me in this lonely crowd,

Is a man who swears he's not to blame.

All day long I hear him shouting so loud,

Crying out that he was framed.


I see my light come shining

From the west unto the east.

Any day now, any way now,

I shall be released. 


Dwarf Music


As the song indicates, we carry resentments of the people and events that caused us to be locked up. But by turning away from the past and toward the light of the present we ensure our release from bondage. Resentment will never let us out.

         Jan shared a similar story to Anita’s, only without any specific details. Her contemplation has revealed how she bottled herself up in the past, and now her desire for liberation is cautiously coaxing her to regain her freedom of spirit. We shared a bright moment with these two brave souls, where light, love and joy have triumphed over their chains. An age-old tale of redemption.

         Abhinivesa, the excessive love of life, has some very positive features as well. The dictionary tells us, “application, intentness, study, affection, devotion, determination (to effect a purpose or attain an object), tenacity, adherence to.” You can see it’s going downhill somewhat, but still essentially positive. We have to turn to the root, ni-vis, to sniff out the rat. It has an extensive range of interesting meanings, but includes “to be fixed or intent on.” The affliction must be that when you want something very much, you may trample on other people who stand in your way, or miss some very valuable opportunities a little off to the side. Excessive love produces myopia, and of course it leads to attachment.

         It turns out that excessive love of life is the flip side of aversion. Yoga asks us to remain in a neutral state, poised between charging forward and pulling back.


         The pranava aum invites a reverse journey from manifestation, leading us to the unmanifest. We aren’t released from bondage by rearranging factors of exterior manifestation, but by passing through the cracks, so to speak. We shrink from objective awareness into the vastness of the unmanifest, freeing ourselves from the oppression of fixed forms.

         We begin life as a single cell that undergoes a prescribed unfoldment without any conscious involvement from anyone. After birth we continue to unfold along more or less fixed lines, like a flower stalk rising up out of the ground. Environmental factors are certainly important, as they impinge on the innate program and alter it for good or ill. Gradually a sense of self is introduced, and at some propitious moment conscious awareness is born, like the flower opening. This is the point where we may lose faith in our program of unfoldment and begin to flounder. We imagine that we are in charge, and we are all too aware that we know nothing. We are incompetent, and the future is a total mystery. We have met our ignorance, first of the afflictions.

         In our bafflement, we deputize the only aspect of mind that seems capable of dealing with our ignorance, namely our ego. Despite its ignorance, the ego takes over from the innate program, and begins to unintentionally shred it to pieces. It follows the advice of fools and is led far afield. And as our inner assurance falls away to be replaced by an ignorant ego, we desperately cling to pleasurable bits of the environment as substitutes for inner bliss, and develop attachments to them. In a nutshell this is how the other three klesas afflict us.

         By this stage of our study we are kissing goodbye to our afflictions. We are turning to Isvara, to the love and divine pattern that is the solid and true ground of who we are. We needed to see our afflictions and know them so we could let them go. There was a real sense in the class that this has happened. As Nitya puts it, we are now initiated into the yogic discipline of contemplation. Patanjali will soon show us how meditating on the pranava, Aum, will take us into the heart of the mystery.


Part II

Some more of my conversation with Wendy Oak, for your enjoyment and edification. Wendy has said some things very beautifully here:


Best of luck digging down to the bottom of the well with your bucket. It's a good metaphor, but we all know you’ve scooped up some goodies already.... Take care, Scott


I know. And yes, I have indeed. My bucket has dripped with nectar. It is Patanjali who is my issue. He feels an intruder. Maybe if I knew him a bit better. Is there any reading about him you would suggest, Scott?   Thanks Wendy.


There is nothing better than Nitya's version of Patanjali. He manages to salvage the unitive aspect, while Patanjali is fairly dualistic. It isn't Nitya's best work, but it’s far better than the competition. Hopefully the class notes can help too. So there is nothing else to read to fix things that I'm aware of.

  Sometimes when we resist a teaching, it's because it's getting close to something we've been guarding for a long time. That's why persisting is important. At other times it is just off the mark. We have to decide, but some leeway should be accorded to a great historical figure.

  And in case you missed this bit from a past class notes:


I want to pass on a trio of pithy sentences from Eknath Easwaran describing the Yoga Sutras. He writes (Gita Vol. II, p. 22):


The heart of this program is meditation, which Patanjali, a great spiritual teacher in ancient India, divides conveniently into three stages, dharana, dhyana and samadhi. Patanjali's exposition is so precise and so free of dogma that I don't think it can ever be improved on in these qualities. But it is written in a kind of lecture note style, in the expectation that other teachers will elaborate on these notes in their own way on the basis of their experience.


Perfect. The sutras are more dense than koans even, often being simply a list of terms organized to remind the "lecturer" what to cover and when. Some of Easwaran's Gita commentary is not to my taste, but he gets off some great stuff here and there. This comes from his commentary on VII, 1, which is a really commendable one.


Back to the present--I'm sure you can handle it. Feel free to forward your complaints to me, because I like to hear about them. Sometimes I can ameliorate them, or simply agree with them, and I may address the ideas in future notes. Ta, Scott


Thank you so much Scott for your welcome reply. You’re right of course. I would like to read something about Patanjali’s life sometime. How he fits into it all. More anon.

in deepest gratitude. Wendy.


Nobody knows anything about those guys, Vyasa, Patanjali, Buddha. It's all fictional. Vyasa means writer, in other words, Anonymous. Patanjali may or may not exist. What you read about him will be some proselytizer's tale. Send your gratitude to the ancient wise rishis as a whole. They all contributed at the source to the great river that has come down to us here in the lowlands. Peace, Scott


Hello Scott


I was deeply shocked this morning to read that Patanjali did not exist. It felt like a hit in my stomach. Like a sudden bereavement.

And then to discover that Buddha did not exist either was almost too much. I was totally stunned. Like finding out about Father Christmas.


Now I am pondering about all my dear friends, like Ganesa and Krishna and Siva. They probably didn't exist either.

Yet in a curious way we have brought them to life, through loving them and their teachings. We clothe them in our thoughts about them and our understandings. So now I am sure that they all do exist somewhere out in the ethers and in our hearts too.


This makes me feel bad about my fedupness with Patanjali. I am sorry I was cross with him. I see him now as a fine figure, filled with wisdom and light who is kind enough to give us his guidance. So he definitely exists for me and I am grateful that you helped me to discover my regard for him and accept his teachings.


'The heart of this programme is meditation....   I really do need to dive deeper here. Definitely lower the bucket and not rush to bring it up.


I liked the pithy sentences from EE. Really helpful to have a new view as it were. I suppose we are in the first stage of dharana.


Thank you for being so helpful.


all for now.    Wendy.


Sorry about the pain caused by helping pull out that rotten tooth or poisoned arrow or whatever. But you'll feel better in the morning!

  And you're right—-what we make of these imaginary figures definitely exists, so we can use it to inspire and energize us, and as a means of communicating with others.

Aum, Scott


PS Entering a really good section of the YS after today


Part III

Passing on Stella's response, memories of days gone by in Kerala. If only such sanity would prevail in our time! RST




Beautiful writings!


 "A good class is a kind.......

First someone mentions a problem

or observation or complaint. Then we talk about

it, converting it to a sensible mental picture.

Next we sit quiet and allow the externalizing

trend to dissipate, allow for an inner stillness."


When I read this, I feel it is like American Indians and old Village heads and members in India did for years.


I remember when I was small, many days at night people came and talked to my father and discuss these things and came up with solutions or just listening to them.




Part IV

And since we don’t meet for two weeks, here’s an apropos reprise of Nitya’s Yoga Letter Seven, from about a year back, regarding the question of whether we can allow life to unfold or if we need to wrestle it into shape. Remember, this is a meditation, and there are times when the opposite is appropriate:


This is a meditation in which the meditator does not meddle with the seemingly ludicrous game that is going on as a surface play of the mind. In this peaceful watching, inferential thinking and all argumentative reasoning can be laid to rest for a while. There is no need to worry about how you can sink into the depth of your being without making positive attempts to attain your release. Just as individual units of the projective universe have their constituents (dharma), which necessarily unfold their characteristic functions, the universal substratum also has its own intrinsic nature. It is not projective. Its function is analogically equivalent to the reemergence of the individual existence, which loses its identity in universal existence.



Sutra I:28

By its constant repetition and dwelling upon its meaning in the mind.


         It was nearly dark at the outset of the class, a reminder of how the year flies by. Only a few sessions back we were finishing in daylight. Hard to believe that the first decade of the twenty-first century is speeding to a close. To someone my age, 1984 still stands for the far-off future….

         We opened with a brief dip into the exercise Nitya offers at the end of his comments, a meditation on a simple linkage of breath and aum. The class agreed it was useful to have a structure to return to whenever the mind wanders off. We know we should treat all of life as a meditation, but so often we forget, and instead treat it as a series of isolated incidents. Having a simple format of some sort trains us to conserve Isvara (in this case) as the core of everything. Once we get the hang of it, we can apply what we’ve learned throughout our everyday life. Thus, intelligent chanting of a mantra can be tremendously “useful,” as well as restorative for the psyche.

         The mantra fails to be helpful when we mistake the form for the content. We might think Aum is like a deity to be worshipped. Then our pseudo-compassion leads us to evangelize on behalf of it. We are sure that if everyone bowed down before Aum they would all be saved, and so on. Such types of seemingly religious behavior are nothing more than clever and devious ways that the ego derails the efficacy of the mantra, and they lead to tragedies great and small. Speaking of the anthropomorphizing of the empyrean, after citing the classic cases of Krishna and Christ, Nitya counsels us:


This kind of imagination only brings distraction. Even so, there has to be some direction in the mind that symbolically suggests what you are looking for. Thus bhavana is both helpful and not helpful. Obsessive imagination can only bring a caricature-like notion of the Absolute to the mind. Instead, your imagination needs to be supported by the substantiality of a perennial truth.


         A perennial truth is lived and experienced directly, in the present moment. So we are only working on ourself with our self here, free of supplied imagery. We cast off all distracting thoughts, both good and bad, so that we can penetrate deeper into the mystery.

         Distractions always come, and are not to be thought of as unspiritual per se. It’s not that wise yogis are miraculously cured of experiencing distractions, it’s just that they don’t follow them off the track. They recognize them for what they are, ephemera. There is a lot of pretense in spiritual life due to people believing that they have to project a faultless image. Only if all such imaginary projections are discarded can the meditation be fruitful.

         And yes, Patanjali’s Yoga admits to fruition. The Gita’s apparently subsequent suggestion is to avoid dwelling on the fruits, because they will wind up being yet another clever distraction of the ego. But here we can provisionally speak of fruits, though only in a general way. There are to be no false promises! Nitya concludes by delineating the goal and describing the method used to obtain it: “The establishment of coordination between the cogitating mind and the so-called mindless state of samadhi is achieved by repeating the experience.” In other words, the more we dip in the river, the sooner we learn to swim.

         Repeatedly chanting a word or phrase rapidly becomes boring and lulls the mind to stupor. To counteract this, Nitya instructs us to always maintain an intelligent assessment of the process. We are never to allow the practice to become mechanical. If we were to set a goal of chanting aum a hundred times, for instance, we would likely just be focused on the number: we would in reality be meditating on the numbers 1 to 100. Numbers appeal to our “left brain,” so numerical meditations appeal to the modern, exteriorized mentality. But the so-called left brain is already overfed nowadays. We bring the “right brain” into the equation by abandoning all hard edges and strict formulas. Chanting aum is just a simple expression of being alive! Don’t make a big deal about it.

         Aum is known as the word of acceptance or acquiescence. It is perfectly neutral, like the English phrase “So be it.” Thus it can be used to bring us back to neutrality when we find ourself going off kilter. Just say aum!

         The class went over some of the ways in which we can rewrite our narratives of everyday life to make them inspiring rather than deadening. We see on all hands how perverted notions can lead well-intentioned people far afield. Casting those chains from us is an essential task of our intelligence. Anita has been really learning how negative imaginings serve no purpose whatever, and how they can just as easily be framed in ways that inspire joy rather than dread.

         Brenda discovered a rare three-minute newsreel on Youtube of Helen Keller and her mentor Anne Sullivan, exemplifying the power of repetition to accomplish even miraculous and seemingly impossible feats. Their story, now ebbing out of the popular imagination, is among the greatest achievements of the human race. Among many other things, it reminds us to cherish our manifold gifts that we so casually take for granted. Look it up!

         We closed with another silent chanting of aum. The group experience lends extra energy to the one-pointed concentration which opens into vast inner fields of abundantly full emptiness. Aum.


Part II

         Susan related a beautiful story about attending a bar mitzvah, the Jewish rite of passage into adulthood, over the weekend. In the main event, all the relatives of the budding adult gather around him on the altar. At this bar mitzvah, there were actually two great-grandfathers present. Both had come great distances and endured daunting difficulties to honor their great-grandson. With a helper at each arm, they painstakingly rolled their walkers up onto the bimah platform to stand with their family.

         At the climax of the ceremony, the rabbi hands the Torah, the sacred book, to each family member in attendance. As it was passed around, Susan noticed that most of the relatives took it and handed it back perfunctorily, but when it came to one of the great-grandfathers, he held it with great reverence. It was clearly much more than a routine act for him. His emotion was palpable to the entire assembly. He treated the huge tome so lovingly and with such passion that it moved Susan to tears. She could feel a lifetime, even many generations of lifetimes, compressed in the embrace. Love of life and depth of experience were wordlessly passed along to all present in the way he treasured that symbol of his religion and culture. Looking around, she could see that every eye was glistening.

         Susan felt this scene exemplified the positive side of bhavana, the dwelling upon the meaning within every situation. Having something concrete and perennially present, like a sacred volume or a favorite chant, is a touchstone to return to again and again with your finest thoughts and emotions, and the power of it grows with the repetition. Even we who were two steps removed from the ceremony were affected, by way of Susan’s passionate recounting of the experience. So the blessing radiates outward, rippling beyond its unitive source, sometimes visibly but most often invisibly.

         The gentleman’s reverence for a cherished symbol is a far cry from the projected divine beings that attract those who prefer fantasy to substantiality. We have several friends these days who are immersed in imaginary worlds teeming with gods and goddesses and fairy sprites, which look to the outsider as the product of wishful thinking. There is an undercurrent of despair in these superficially charming fantasies. Such delusions can sway others, and might even be able to make their lives more tolerable in the way children are charmed by fairytales, but they run the risk of being drawn into psychic backwaters to circle about endlessly in self-propelled eddies. It is very tricky to correctly discriminate a true meaning from a false one. But the great-grandfather’s simple gesture is to me many times more profound and real than an entire menagerie of celestial entities.



Sutra I:29

Also, from the repetition of the pranava mantra, the attainment of the disappearance of obstacles and the turning inward of consciousness.


         The present sutra introduces a short section addressing obstacles. It is of inordinate value to share our thoughts on these in a group, because each person’s obstacles reside in their blind spots: that’s what blind spots are, basically. Since it’s much easier to see other people’s faults than our own, there is every hope that, even without any of the direct accusations and confrontation of classical techniques, we can nonetheless dislodge some grasp of our own blind spots.

         We began by considering what obstacles are, as we must know them before we can ameliorate them. Charles had recently been reading Elaine Pagel’s book, The Origin of Satan. The original concept of Satan was as an aspect of God that supplied impediments, something you could attribute your misfortune to. Pagels, one of the greatest Biblical scholars of any era, writes:


As he first appears in the Hebrew Bible, Satan is not necessarily evil, much less opposed to God. On the contrary, he appears… as one of God’s obedient servants…. In Biblical sources the Hebrew term the satan describes an adversarial role. It is not the name of a particular character…. What [the Hebrew storytellers] meant was any one of the angels sent by God for the specific purpose of blocking or obstructing human activity. The root stn means “one who opposes, obstructs, or acts as an adversary.” (The Greek term diabolos, later translated “devil,” literally means “one who throws something across one’s path.”)…. The satan’s presence in a story could help account for unexpected obstacles or reversals of fortune.

  But this messenger is not necessarily malevolent. God sends him, like the angel of death, to perform a certain task, although one that human beings may not appreciate; as the literary scholar Neil Forsyth says of the satan, “If the path is bad, an obstruction is good.” Thus the satan may simply have been sent by the Lord to protect a person from worse harm. (39-40)


         Clearly, Judaism is a close kin in this matter with Vedanta. The paranoia and otherness of the devil came later, and these are impediments in their own right. If you attribute your faults to an implacable enemy, you have no need to work on yourself, and it reinforces all the worst features of the ego to view the world that way.

         Deb linked this early idea of Satan with Vedanta’s concept of ignorance, more like a shadow where light is reduced. Obstacles therefore are removed by wisdom.

         Anita felt that obstacles provide what she called a trigger. They call our attention to problems that need attention, and so wake us up in a way. It’s true that we may go through life without a care until something goes haywire, and then we start to wonder what’s going on. Anita likened her idea to a watercolor painting. You wash a surface with the paint, but any roughness or other texturing causes variations in its uniformity, and these provide interest.

         Fred had a similar analogy, where life is like floating down a river. The obstacles are like rocks in the stream, and we just flow around them and go on. Some may cause eddies or force us into backwaters for a period, but eventually we continue along. Like a painting’s underlayment, it is the obstacles that give the river its variations and thus its interest. Without them a river is more like a canal, featureless and uninteresting.

         These ideas point out a basic sanity in the group. While we are more or less free of them, Patanjali has some real serious obstacles in mind, things that throw us utterly off the track, that thwart us from living a fulfilling life. Things that need to be overcome before we can proceed. And that’s a good way to consider the problem of obstacles. The class began with the typical ill-considered idea that the point was to just chant aum all day long, and whatever prevented us from doing that was an obstacle. Not at all! Wasting your life chanting or carrying out meaningless rituals is one of the biggest obstacles for those who consider themselves on a spiritual path. These are means to the end of a life worth living, not ends in themselves, as Bill reminded us.

         So what is it that prevents us from being all we can be, from a life of excellence? Some impediments may respond to chanting aum, and some may not. We have to identify our “hangups” before we know what to do about them, which is why this section of the study is particularly important.

         The efficacy of aum is to take us to a neutral mental state. Our initial reaction to stress is to oppose it head on, but we have learned that doing so prolongs and even increases the tension. To deal optimally with problems we need to access a transcendentally neutral poise. Aum gathers the oscillating consciousness and concenters it in the turiya, where we can witness the passing show with dispassion.

         Yet again, the point is not to go into the turiya and disappear. Instead, most of us want to bring our best wisdom to bear on our whole life. Moni told the story of one Amma, who followed Nitya during the period Moni was his personal assistant. Amma was very upset that she couldn’t meditate peacefully because thoughts kept coming, and asked Nitya for advice. He told her to not resist the thoughts, but to just watch them without reacting to them. That didn’t satisfy her, so she went to guru after guru trying to get her mind to stop working.

         Amma was a typical neophyte who imagined that becoming free of her mind was the goal of meditation. A healthy mind hums right along, however, doing what it’s supposed to do. Suppressing it or otherwise reacting to it only makes the mind press ahead ever more energetically. That’s exactly why spiritual techniques are valuable: they redirect that dynamic energy in creative and unitive modes of expression. So instead of rejecting yourself, you have to learn to be comfortable with yourself. You become your own best friend. This game is not about doing away with “you.” It’s about promoting you to a heightened state of expertise.

         Anita felt confused about the distinction between going with the flow and overcoming obstacles. When do we take things as they come, and when do we knock them aside? This is a crucial paradox, and one where we are prone to make plenty of mistakes. By going with the flow of events, are we allowing our life to be determined solely by obstacles? And how is it that we know who we are and what we should be doing anyway?

         The world has its own agenda, and a lot of the people in it would like to use other people’s energy for their own benefit. On top of that, life is filled with necessary duties that suck up our time and attention. So if we simply respond to life’s demands, our dharma, our natural inclination to develop as unique individuals, could be completely squelched. We have to chart a course to maximize our freedom so that we can grow as our natural gifts are inclined to grow. In a world gone mad with busywork, it’s a real art form to pry out anything like freedom.

         Moni explained that we have to make a sincere effort to keep functioning at our best, that it is no accident. If we don’t try we don’t accomplish anything.

         Charles agreed that the Protestant ethic, which is very much in the driver's seat these days, is a kind of mania to keep people busy. It is rife with an unacknowledged fear of anything below the surface in life, coupled with a monumental disdain for those who are content to relax and enjoy their time on Earth. Suspicion of others is rampant among the holier-than-thou crowd, and God is visualized as a stern managerial type looking over your shoulder with a frown. Look busy or you’re fired! As in fired in the fires of hell.

         To all this horse shit we say aum. We drop out of those types of games, in search of peace. We discover who we are, and foster our talents, and fill our hearts with joy and love. We share whatever we have to offer with those around us. When we are accused, we say aum. When we are praised, we say aum. When there is nothing, we say aum. Many obstacles melt away of their own accord. For the rest we cinch up our belts and wade in.

         We will have a couple of more classes on obstacles, and I’m sure the specific examples in the text will dislodge some ideas in everyone. I really hope this can be a fruitful part of the work, where we honestly and bravely assess our favorite blockages and share them amongst ourselves, because to know them is to overcome them, in large measure. Clothe them in an imaginary person if you prefer, like Rumi’s Mullah Nasruddin, to avoid any embarrassment, but please do give it your best thoughts. Those who write from afar, be sure to say if we can share your contributions or not. Aum.


Part II

Charles also mentioned that the elephant-headed god Ganesha was, like the early Satan, a placer of obstacles. He is well known as the remover of obstacles but little known as a source of impediments, so Deb and I looked him up later and found these two entries for your amusement and edification:


from Hindu Art, by T. Richard Blurton (Harvard University Press, 1993):

Unlike Skanda, who was born only to Shiva, Ganesha was born from Parvati. Throughout the myths of the two sons, this opposition continues. Skanda is the god of hasty and unconsidered action, while Ganesha has a reputation for being wily and acting only after thought. Especially propitiated as the Remover of Obstacles, Ganesha is also, when angered or ignored, the Placer of Obstacles. (104)


from Handbook of Hindu Mythology, by George M. Williams (Oxford University Press, 2008):

An account in the Linga Purana gave one version of [Ganesha’s] origin. The asuras and the rakshashas [demons] performed sacrifices and austerities and received a boon from Siva by which they were able to defeat the devas (gods) in battle. Indra and the other gods complained to Siva and prayed that he would create an obstacle for the asuras and rakshashas. Siva created from himself a being, Vighneshvara, the lord of obstacles, who would place all sorts of objects in the way of the asuras and rakshashas and frustrate their attempts to gain merit from their sacrifices and austerities, thereby decreasing the effectiveness of their boon. Vighneshvara came from Siva’s amshas, a part of his power, that was placed in the womb of Parvati. As soon as Vighneshvara was born, he obstructed the wicked and aided the righteous. (133)



Sutra I:30

Physical pain or distress, mental depression, doubt, exaggeration, laziness, hankering after objects, insanity, having no firm ground for spiritual orientation, instability—these obstacles cause the distraction of the mind.


         We continue within the brief section addressing obstacles to samadhi, one that offers a preview of the intensity of the Yoga Sutras, which do not hesitate to bring white heat to bear on our illusions. In his brief but excellent commentary, Nitya presents Patanjali’s list of obstacles in a way that shows how they are all interrelated. Moreover, while we all share these blockages in a general way, each person will have a unique complex of the issues that result in our inability to concentrate and instead become diverted into sidetracks.

         We should probably restate for the record that yoga is primarily intended as psychotherapy for the sane, and not necessarily as a remedy for any of the problems on the list. It seems that some people imagine it to be a cure-all, but Patanjali’s point is that these problems need to be corrected before the expertise of yoga can be properly accessed. There is no intent here to minimize the seriousness of any of these categories, any of which can and do take their sufferers out of contention for yogic concentration. Chronic pain, for instance, monopolizes the attention very effectively, and must be ameliorated before the mind can stabilize. Pain is in fact an indication that something needs attention, so ignoring the problem and meditating or chanting aum is exactly the wrong thing to do. We can go through the whole list and see how awful each can be, but it didn’t seem helpful to do in class. The point is that any or all of these can ruin your life, and it is well to avoid them if possible.

         Anne especially reminded us that clinical depression is far more serious than the mere depression experienced by most humans, and which we frequently discuss in class. She will bring the latest definition to share next week. That being said, the knowledge we share together, based on the insights of very intelligent and careful observers of the psyche, namely the Indian rishis, can be very efficacious at supporting a typically alert person to excel in mental health and the joy of living. We offer it in the spirit of mutual benefit for those who wish to avail themselves of it, and have no intentions of foisting it on those who don’t.

         That being said, in the West in particular, the spirit of helpless victimization is fostered by various institutions that have much to gain from it. We learn to humbly accept our fate, which makes us dependable servants. Too, modern Christianity epitomizes the miraculous intervention theme, insisting that we are helpless without divine aid and so we must not look within ourselves for solutions. The whole culture is shot through with crippling philosophies like these. While it may console us in our unhappiness to know that we aren’t responsible, these beliefs can be lumped under the category of “having no firm ground for spiritual orientation.” Instead we should become self-reliant to the maximum extent, and shrug off diversionary thoughts of victimhood that undermine our self-respect. Our position is seldom incurable.

         The only way to find out if a problem is intractable is to try to fix it. Some are, some aren’t, but how do you know? It’s a shame to give up before some significant effort has been made, but we live in a culture that encourages surrender immediately after the first shot is fired, or sometimes before. Needless to say, the Yoga Sutra philosophy is rather more appreciative of what humans can accomplish, given a healthy measure of dedication. In any case, yoga is best for those whose problems are soluble. Whether they are or not, you have to overcome your problems before you can attend to subtleties, which should be commensurate with your abilities and interests. If you are missing some fingers, you can be a fine singer or drummer, but don’t bother with the piano.

         Susan had just been to a soccer game in which her son had starred. She watched all the players closely and noticed how when the mediocre ones were challenged by a defender they kicked the ball away but then quit. It was as if they knew in advance they couldn’t be successful. The good players, though, kicked and then followed the action, going around the defender or away from them for another pass. They were always pressing toward the goal with full intent. Absent was the defeatist mentality of the poorer players, who were just trying to push the action away from themselves as quickly as they could. Nor did they seem to even realize that they were subtly giving up, as if resigned to their fate. The class adopted this as a handy visual image for what Patanjali is encouraging: when an obstacle appears, don’t let it stop you in your tracks but find a way to keep making progress.

         Moni felt that she experienced all of these obstacles after the death of her mother, and she told us frankly of her suffering for many days after coming back from the funeral. She was too depressed to return to work, and stayed home, sliding from one distracted state of mind to another. Then one day she realized she had to go to work or she would never get out of her depression. It took a major effort, but once she was back on the job she found her spirits lifting, and she gradually emerged from the state of despair that was gripping her.

         Having something to do is underrated as a curative aid. Focusing on a project and getting the body moving can be a monumental act of will for anyone immobilized by their obstacles, but utilizing concentrated will power can gradually bring the system back online, like getting a heavily loaded freight train rolling. At first there is a lot of steam and puffing without any movement, but soon there is a tiny increment accompanied by great sound and fury. Slowly, slowly, static friction is replaced by rolling friction, and the beast picks up speed. But you have to keep up the pressure.

         Getting underway is the hardest part by far. Very often a stuck person will be self-medicating with drugs or alcohol, which sap any will to escape from the prison of obstacles. As you longingly gaze out through the bars, you may take some resolve to break free, but you have to wait until the drugs wear off to start. As the moment approaches, the pain mounts, a mental struggle ensues, and before you know it you have taken another dose. Temporary relief, but no escape.

         A large chunk of the class was spent discussing Jill Bolte Taylor’s very interesting book, My Stroke of Insight. She had her left brain taken offline by a severe stroke, which launched her into her right brain consciousness, which she compared to nirvana. Afterwards she spent eight years regaining her left brain skills so that she could communicate the experience to others. Being a brain scientist, she has an excellent grasp of what happened during the entire experience.

         What neurological studies and her stroke have shown us is that we have within us the blissful state of oneness with the Absolute as part of our makeup. Building on top of that, the sequential intellect, with its language and number sense and general dualism, being brought into dominance, covers up our “spiritual” side to the point we forget it even exists. Thus, to reconnect with our spirit, all we have to do is relinquish the dominance of our left brain. Once we have re-membered our core, we can integrate it with our surface mind in a happy confection, liberating our abilities and infusing our life with joy.

         Deb noted that the ancient analogy of the two birds sitting on a branch, one witnessing while the other eats the five (sensory) fruits, is a pictographic image of the right and left brain dichotomy. That’s exactly how our dual brain works, according to current understanding.

         It helps to realize we’re not accessing some far off, weird state, but something that really is right inside of us. Yet if we cling to the distractions of left brain dominance, we can go through a whole lifetime and never realize the treasure we carry within. Or, as in some forms of mental illness, the left and right brains are simply out of synch and not communicating properly, so our psyche is dis-integrated. We need both aspects to be healthy and well-adjusted as well as integrated, to be at our best.

         Paralleling Taylor’s insights is a fine book titled The Religious Case Against Belief, by James Carse, also highly recommended reading. Carse’s thesis is that belief and religion are two separate things, like left and right brain functions. Often we mistake belief for religion, with very bad outcomes. Even in the Gurukula it is hard to shake the confusion between the two, and whenever I bring it up it engenders strong opposition. In his introduction Carse writes:


Offering a religious case against belief obviously implies that religion is not strictly a matter of belief. It may come as a surprise that a thoughtful survey of the history of religion provides scant evidence for an extended overlap of the two. Quite simply, being a believer does not in itself make one religious; being religious does not require one to be a believer. This improbable distinction has been hidden by the tenacious notion that religion is chiefly a collection of beliefs. (2)


Because of this confusion, we waste a lot of time trying to pin down exactly what we should believe, as if this was the key to heaven. Whole lifetimes are dedicated to splitting the hairs in just the right way. Yet one generation’s “fighting words” are the next generation’s disinterested shrug.

         Carse, an expert on the history of religion, demonstrates his thesis with armloads of examples of the disasters brought about by belief systems. Beliefs require the setting up of non-believers as opponents and, as psychologists have demonstrated, the urge to divide and fight precedes any actual distinction between the antagonists. Belief turns out to be one of the most tenacious obstacles of all, probably residing under “exaggeration” in Patanjali’s list. We should remember the Gita’s advice in V, 15: “The all-pervading One takes cognizance neither of the sinful nor the meritorious actions of anyone; wisdom is veiled by unwisdom; beings are deluded thereby.” In our present scheme, we can reword this as “the right brain is veiled by the left brain, causing us all sorts of delusions,” but also offering us new and exciting potentials if we can bring the two hemispheres together. 

Scott Teitsworth